A little holiday cheer is in high demand at Christmas tree farms this year.
“There’s a big demand for our trees this season,” said Peter Kappeler, owner of Fir Ever Green Tree Farm near Falun. “It’s become a big thing to take the whole family out to the farm and get a fresh Christmas tree.”
This year, folks are picking out their trees earlier, and more people are visiting during the week, said Kappeler, who grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Switzerland.
For some, the tree will be the centrepiece of an unusual holiday season spent quietly at home. “They can’t go to Florida or Mexico, so they want to have a real Christmas tree in their household this year.”
Mostly, though, people are looking for something to do.
“There’s not much a family can do right now. There’s not much sports going on, events have been cancelled, but we’re still open here,” said Kappeler. “It’s an outdoor activity that people can still do as a family — wander around our trees and hunt for the perfect Christmas tree.”
It’s a similar story at R Family Tree Farm near Sylvan Lake.
“In 2018 and 2019, we were a little slower, and then all of a sudden, it’s picked up again,” said owner Gary Porttin. “It’s been a good year so far. It has been nice out, and the weather helps for people coming out to get a tree early this year.”
A number of families have come during off-peak hours to enjoy some time outdoors.
“It’s only one family at a time, so they can enjoy the firepit and the toboggan hill and the skating rink and still be separated from people,” he said. “It’s a good way to get some fresh air.”
High demand, short supply
Wholesale trees have also seen “ridiculous” demand, said Bruce Wilkins of Mountain View Christmas Trees, a wholesaler based in Okotoks.
“We’re really glad we have the same inventory we had in the past, because otherwise, we’d be worried about leaving people hanging,” he said.
This year, they’ve also partnered with Heritage Park in Calgary, and a portion of the proceeds will help support the park.
“With COVID, that’s been especially important,” said Wilkins. “The park has had a rough year.”
Aside from the pandemic, a few other factors are at play. The first is how long it takes to grow a Christmas tree — 10 to 14 years in Alberta.
“There’s limited stock,” said Wilkins. “Growers can’t produce more trees than they have planted, and right now, the crops that are maturing are the ones that were planted during the housing downturn, so there are fewer trees available.”
The sector is also shrinking. Between 2011 and 2016 (the last available data), the number of Christmas tree farms in Canada dropped 21 per cent.
“A lot of the farmers are retiring,” said Wilkins. “So there are fewer trees in that regard.”
And finally, big-box retail stores “tend to buy unsustainably,” and that drives down both the quality and the quantity of trees available. Retailers usually buy wholesale trees out of the United States, but they often die quickly because they’re not conditioned to Canada’s climate.
“If they aren’t grown for the conditions, they won’t thrive after they’re cut,” said Wilkins. “But there are lots of small growers and retailers out there within the community. So when you buy a Christmas tree from them, it’s a great way to support local businesses.”
Picking the right tree
Look for a premium-graded tree, he said.
“It’s not a sales pitch — it’s an actual grading system that the growers use,” said Wilkins. “Basically every lot will tell you it’s premium, but you can quickly see if they’re pulling your leg.”
Premium trees are sheared to have the perfect cone shape that’s synonymous with a Christmas tree.
“They don’t just grow like this — we have to maintain those trees, fertilize them by hand, and shear them with machetes,” said Kappeler. “There’s a lot of work in the tree business, and it’s mainly hand labour for the Christmas trees.”
A premium tree should also have an almost perfectly straight trunk, and almost no holes or bald spots.
“Anything less than that drops down to a No. 1- or a No. 2-graded tree, and the quality curbs off quite quickly on that,” said Wilkins.
Tree height is another important consideration.
“People are always telling me they want a small tree, but a normal household probably has room for a six- to eight-foot tree,” said Kappeler. “They always look smaller in the field than they actually are in the house.”
It’s also helpful to know what kind of tree you might like before driving onto the lot. A Canadian-grown variety will make a “big difference in the quality,” said Wilkins. Some of the most popular homegrown varieties are Balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, and white spruce.
“If you’re looking for the most beautiful tree, I’d recommend a Fraser fir or a Balsam fir,” he said. “Those are very hardy. We do about 4,000 trees a year, and maybe three of them get returned to us. They fare extremely well in the conditions.”
A tree will likely dry out on its ride home, so make a fresh cut (as the stump get plugged up with sap) and get it into water right away.
“So we basically cut about two inches off the bottom and then the tree can drink water.”
Keep your tree away from a heat source (like a fireplace or hot air vent) and keep them watered and “they’ll last for months,” added Porttin.
And there’s nothing like a real Christmas tree, said Wilkins.
“Almost everybody who comes to visit us comes back in the following years,” he said. “It really does become a family tradition.”
And for Porttin, that’s the real magic of helping a family pick out the perfect Christmas tree — especially in a tough year like this one.
“It cheers everybody up,” he said. “Everybody comes in good spirits and everybody leaves happy. It almost brings back a little normalcy.”